Mechanical forces direct a host of cellular and tissue processes. Although much emphasis has been placed on cell-adhesion complexes as force sensors, the forces must nevertheless be transmitted through the cortical cytoskeleton. Yet how the actin cortex senses and transmits forces and how cytoskeletal proteins interact in response to the forces is poorly understood. Here, by combining molecular and mechanical experimental perturbations with theoretical multiscale modelling, we decipher cortical mechanosensing from molecular to cellular scales. We show that forces are shared between myosin II and different actin crosslinkers, with myosin having potentiating or inhibitory effects on certain crosslinkers. Different types of cell deformation elicit distinct responses, with myosin and α-actinin responding to dilation, and filamin mainly reacting to shear. Our observations show that the accumulation kinetics of each protein may be explained by its molecular mechanisms, and that protein accumulation and the cell's viscoelastic state can explain cell contraction against mechanical load.